Thursday, December 30, 2010

Spinach Bacon Quiche

I love eggs in just about any form, so it's inevitable that they show up on my table at all times of day. It doesn't hurt that they are so easy to prepare, which is a nice break from some of the other cooking projects I've had during the holidays. Sometimes I make bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches. Sometimes I have soy sauce eggs with rice or noodles. And then sometimes I bake quiche.

The first time I tasted quiche was in my seventh grade French class. Our teacher, Mrs. D, wanted us to absorb some culture as well as conjugations. She perched a beret over her curly auburn hair (it was clichéd even back then, although adorable on Mrs. D), read French poetry, played French records (so help me, I'll slap anyone who asks me what records are), and brought in Evian water and Brie cheese (they were exotic at the time). She also fed us quiche.

Since then, quiches have become hip, then passe, and now ... I don't know what their current status is, and I don't care. Just let me have the eggy, custardy, cheesy filling in a buttery crust. Did I mention the bacon? I'll be quiet for the two minutes it takes to inhale my share.

Ham and cheese quiche with broccoflower gratin and braised leek
A pre-made crust makes a quiche quick and easy. But since when do I do things the easy way if the hard way tastes better? For a while I've tried to master pie crust. Not because homemade is cheaper. It's sort of an obsession, my Dulcinea — the right combination of tender and flaky, not too crumbly, but not tough or too hard. Besides, I like the taste of butter, and pre-made crusts are made with vegetable shortening. I don't like shortening. It tends to leave a thin film throughout my mouth that I find unpleasant.

I've made some pretty good crusts, but I'm still experimenting. A recipe that I've been tinkering with for several months replaces one-third of the butter with olive oil (see recipe below). The olive oil helps coat the flour for a more tender crust. It's also more healthful, not that I'm afraid of a little butter or cream, as you can see from the quiche ingredients.

The vodka adds moisture to the dough without helping the gluten form. Gluten, which forms when water mixes with wheat flour, means structure, but it can also contribute to toughness. The vodka wasn't my innovation. A few years ago, Cook's Illustrated published a vodka pie dough recipe that attracted a lot of attention. For me, that dough was a little too wet and sticky to work with. But the idea of using vodka was good, so I incorporated that into my own crust.

Spinach-Bacon Quiche Recipe
Serves 4 adults

1 crust (recipe below)
1 cup shredded cheese (I like to use a combination of cheddar and swiss)
1 package (10 ounces) of frozen chopped spinach, drained*
4 to 5 slices of cooked bacon, crumbled (or 1/2 cup chopped ham)
6 large eggs**
1/2 cup heavy cream (or creme fraiche)
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Bake crust (recipe below).

2. While crust is baking, cook spinach, then squeeze out liquid. After removing crust from oven, immediately sprinkle half  to two-thirds of the shredded cheese all over the bottom of the crust and allow to cool on rack. Lower oven to 375 degrees F.
With fingers, break up the spinach and sprinkle it evenly all over the bottom of the crust. Drop bacon pieces evenly over the spinach, then the rest of the shredded cheese.

3. In a 4-cup measuring cup or in a mixing bowl, beat eggs. Add cream, milk, salt and pepper, and beat until combined. Pour mixture into the crust, taking care not to overfill. Depending on the size of the pie dish, you may have extra filling.

4. Place quiche on a baking sheet, then bake until center barely sets, about 40 to 50 minutes (adjust time depending on the oven). Serve with salad, soup or cooked vegetable. We recently had spinach-bacon quiche with leftover potato gratin and ham and cheese quiche with broccoflower gratin.

Use ham instead of bacon if that's what you have.
NOTES: *I've used cooked fresh spinach with good results. If you don't like spinach, omit the spinach and make a bacon and cheese quiche. Or you could do ham and swiss, smoked salmon and chopped fresh dill, or any other filling combination.

**Leave out a couple yolks to reduce the cholesterol.

Pie crust recipe for quiche
makes a 9-inch deep-dish bottom crust

2 cups all purpose flour*** (275 grams, or a shade under 9 3/4 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup, or 4 ounces) butter, very cold, cut into half-inch cubes
1/4 cup olive oil
5 to 7 Tablespoons ice water (5 Tablespoons worked for me)
1 Tablespoon vodka
1 teaspoon vinegar

1. Put flour and salt in bowl of food processor and pulse to combine. Add half the butter and all the olive oil, and pulse until the butter pieces resemble sand. Scrape down sides of processor bowl if needed. Add remaining butter and process until the butter pieces are about the size of peas. (If you don't have a processor, use your fingers or a pastry cutter to work butter into the flour.)

2. Dump contents of processor into a large (4.5 quart or 5 quart) mixing bowl. Put 5 Tablespoons of the ice water together with the vodka and vinegar in a cup. Using a fork, stir the liquid into the dough until it clumps. Give it a squeeze with a clean hand. If dough crumbles instead of holding together, add water, half Tablespoon at a time. If it holds together, shape into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

3. After dough has rested, roll out and fit into a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate or a 9- or 10-inch quiche dish. Avoid stretching the dough while placing it in the pie plate or it will be more susceptible to shrinkage. Trim dough about 1/4 inch outside the edge of the pie plate. (I usually have enough extra dough from the trimmings to make a toaster pastry.) Then crimp the edges. Poke bottom with a fork and place in freezer 30 minutes.

4. With the rack in lower third of the oven, preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Bake crust until it turns golden, about 25 minutes. You may have to cover the perimeter with a pie crust protector or foil while the bottom bakes through. If the bottom starts to balloon up, pierce with the tines of a fork and use the back of the fork to press the bottom back down. (I haven't had this problem lately, but it could be just luck. If you want, you can line the crust with buttered foil weighed down with pie weights or dried beans for about the first 15 minutes.)

5. Remove crust from oven and set on a rack.

NOTES: ***I use King Arthur unbleached all purpose flour, which is available at my supermarket. There are other good flours, but if the protein content is different, they may require different amounts of liquid. I recommend weighing ingredients for baking, although I know it isn't always possible or convenient. If using cups to measure flour, I fluff the flour then spoon it into the measuring cup before leveling it with a straight edge, such as a knife.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pineapple Isn't Citrus (Not that there's anything wrong with that)

A pomelo and lemons.

Since when is pineapple considered citrus? At least since yesterday for The Wall Street Journal, which featured a story and "recipes that unleash the sweet power of citrus," including instructions for fritters in which pineapple is the only fruit.

The reporter wrote, "It's fitting that chefs looking to play around with produce turn their attention to fragrant citrus—tangerines, pineapples, grapefruits, Meyer lemons and especially sweet oranges—when the fruits are in their prime." Pineapples?

I turned to my husband watching TV on the couch next to me and said, "This has to be wrong. Pineapple isn't citrus." Half listening, he asked, "It isn't?" His response surprised me. I had thought the differences were obvious. Oranges, lemons and other citrus fruits grow on trees, are mostly full of little sacks of juice (vesicles) and have fragrant, dimpled skin that's pleasant to touch. Pineapples come from a herbaceous plant, have a hard, rough skin and are crowned with a mass of spiky leaves. I opened my copy of "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," by Harold McGee, and confirmed that pineapples are indeed unrelated to citrus fruit.
I also did some online checking and came across questions from multiple people asking whether pineapples are citrus fruit. Apparently, people get them confused.

Yes, pineapples are fruit, as are oranges, lemons, grapefruit, etc. They pleasingly blend tartness with sweetness. They thrive in warm climates. But citrus plants are members of the family Rutaceae, and pineapples are members of the Bromeliaceae family, which includes Spanish moss and several common houseplants.

So there. That's straightened out, and we can move on.

A nice way to use pineapple is in a banana pineapple cake from Bon Appétit. I skip the nuts and the frosting and add some extra drained pineapple to the batter. For me the recipe makes a dozen muffins and one 9-inch round cake. The cake is good served with a little whipped cream and sliced fresh bananas or strawberries. The muffins are good plain, served with a cup of coffee or tea.

For savory dishes, try pineapple in ham and pineapple fried rice or in sweet and sour pork chops.

A citrus recipe I like is for Tartelette's mini tarts filled with calamansi mousse and accented with candied kumquats. Kumquats regularly show up in a couple supermarkets in my area, and I found calamansi juice in the freezer section of my local Asian grocery store. If calamansi were unavailable, I'd experiment with Meyer lemons or Key limes.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Financiers

Small squares of chocolate are hidden in the madeleine-shaped financiers.

Eggs are an important component of so many of my recipes, so when I found out about the salmonella outbreak in August and then the massive recall of eggs from two egg producers tied to the outbreak, I worried that the eggs I was feeding my kids were dangerous time bombs. I checked our refrigerator. Ours weren't part of the recall, but what if they were contaminated and got recalled later? I was also angry at the conditions FDA inspectors reported at Hillandale Farms of Iowa and at Wright County Egg, also in Iowa. I won't detail what the reports contain because you might lose your appetite, but you can see for yourself if you want to follow the links to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's reports.
I threw our eggs in the garbage and didn't buy more for about two weeks.

But it was too hard to stick to egg-free dishes. I paid extra for organic cage-free eggs, and after several weeks of no additional recalls, I relaxed a little.

Apparently I'm not alone.The Associated Press reported this week that egg sales are back up after dropping about 9 percent following the outbreak. On Nov. 30, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Wright County Egg, which recalled 380 million eggs after it was linked to the outbreak, could start shipping shell eggs to consumers again. Hillandale got the go ahead in October to start selling eggs again.

Still, for me it's hard to trust again, so I'll continue to avoid companies with a history of problems. (I also try to be more selective with meats and produce.) I know there are no guarantees (about a month ago, another company, Cal-Maine Foods, recalled eggs from a supplier in Ohio because of the potential for salmonella contamination), but I have dinners to make and desserts to bake, including the peanut butter financiers I found in "Rose's Heavenly Cakes," by Rose Levy Beranbaum.

Like eggs, peanut butter has a particular hold on me. I love it in cookies, cake, pie, chocolate truffles, milk shakes, sandwiches, soup, sauce for noodles — just about anything. So when I saw Beranbaum's recipe putting peanut butter into the little French cakes, I had to try them almost as soon as I bought her book.

I was not disappointed. Ground almonds and browned butter in the batter enhanced the peanut flavor and helped the financiers stay moist. Plus, I pushed pieces of chocolate into the center of each cake, just as I do for chocolate-surprise madeleines — not part of Beranbaum's recipe, but I don't think I need to explain why I did it.

If you like peanut butter, try this. The peanut flavor isn't overwhelming — it's not supposed to be candy, after all — but it's definitely there. And check out "Rose's Heavenly Cakes." The color photographs show such beautiful, and to me irresistible, cakes. You'll want to make them too if you're anything like me.

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Financiers Recipe
Adapted from "Rose's Heavenly Cakes"

3/4 cup* (75 g.) sliced almonds (the recipe said preferably unblanched, but I had only some blanched slivered almonds and some unblanched whole almonds, so I used some of both)
10 Tablespoons (142 g.) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups (150 grams) powdered sugar that has been sifted and spooned into the cup and leveled (I didn't have this either so I used 150 grams of superfine sugar)
1/2 cup (57 g.) sifted, bleached all-purpose flour (I have only unbleached)
4 large (120 g.) egg whites at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon salt (because my peanut butter was unsalted)
3 Tablespoons (50 g.) creamy peanut butter (the book calls for Jif)
small pieces of chocolate that can be tucked into each financier

1. Place rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. To make sure my oven gets up to temperature and maintains it, I keep a baking stone on the lower rack and normally preheat about 30 minutes.
Prepare financier molds or tins (if not using nonstick, then brush with melted butter). I don't have financier molds, so I used madeleine tins, which yielded 24 cakes plus enough extra batter for three small tart shapes.

2. Toast the almonds on a baking sheet for several minutes. Watch them. You want the color to darken, but don't let them burn.

3. Melt and brown the butter in a small (about 1 1/2 quart) saucepan over low to medium-low flame. When the milk solids turn brown, remove from heat because they can burn and turn black quickly. Pour butter gently into a glass measuring cup (plastic would be a bad idea here) so that you leave behind the majority of the solids and end up with 1/2 cup of the melted butter. Put it in a warm spot to keep it melted.  (The book said to strain out the solids, but I have enough to clean without adding a strainer to the pile. When I'm competing on TV or writing a book, then I'll strain.)

4. Spin the almonds with the sugar in a food processor until finely ground. Blend in the flour and salt.

5. In a mixing bowl, beat the egg whites on medium speed until they look like the foam on a bubble bath (I used setting 3 on my 7-speed hand-held Cuisinart mixer, although I'd have used a nice stand mixer if I'd had it). Using low speed, beat in the ground almonds and flour. Beat in the melted butter using medium-low speed, then add the peanut butter and mix it in.

6. Fill molds about 2/3 full. I used a 1 Tablespoon rounded measuring spoon to put a 1 Tablespoon of batter into each madeleine depression. Then press a piece of chocolate into each madeleine, using the back of a spoon or your finger to smear a little batter over the chocolate to cover it. (You can skip this step if you don't want to hide the chocolate.) Normally I prefer dark chocolate, but in this particular recipe, I thought the milk chocolate pieces complemented the light peanut butter flavor better.

Bake until they turn golden. The original recipe, which used larger molds than mine, calls for a baking time of 15 to 18 minutes. Mine took 12 to 13 minutes.

7. Place the tins on a rack to cool for several minutes, then unmold the financiers onto the racks to finish cooling. (Unless you are using a silicone financier mold, in which case let them cool completely in the mold on a cooling rack.) Oh, and eat within a day or two. Beranbaum writes that they keep for three days at room temperature if you wrap them airtight in plastic wrap in an airtight container. I'm not sure in what universe they'd still be around after a couple days, so I don't bother.

 NOTE: *I changed several things in this recipe, including the type of almonds used, the type of sugar and the flour, so I weighed all the substitutions to make sure I was using the correct amounts. I think this was most important when using superfine sugar in place of the powdered sugar, because the amount (weight) obtained would have been significantly different for the same cup measurement (volume). That said, it's generally a good practice to weigh ingredients when baking even when making no substitutions at all, because on different occasions you can get different amounts of an ingredient, such as flour, even when using the same measuring cup. Weighing ingredients prevents that inconsistency.

Related: The Cornucopia Institute's Organic Egg Scorecard

Monday, December 6, 2010

Toaster Pastry Tussle

The pastry cools in peace, until my son and I go for it simultaneously.

It's been far too long, but at least I've been cooking and baking during my absence.

One of my favorite things was an impromptu Pop-Tart, er, I mean toaster pastry, that I made to use extra pie crust dough. I filled it with some pear butter sitting in the refrigerator.

I'm going to have to make a batch of dough just for these so that I have enough for everyone. My 7-year-old and I had a little tussle over this, and it wasn't pretty, the scene of a grown woman trying to sit on a little boy and wrestle away his treat. At the time it seemed fun. In hindsight, I'm not so proud of myself. But I let him keep at least half. I'm sure it was pretty close to half.

I'd post a recipe, but I used an olive oil-butter crust that I'm still developing. I'll get that posted as soon as I have that figured out a little better. But you don't need a recipe from me to make these. All you need is some dough, jam (or chocolate, or hazelnut spread, or cinnamon sugar), and an oven or toaster oven.

Cut the dough into squares or squarish rectangles, add a bit of filling, fold and seal. A little goes a long way. The pastry should look pretty flat. If you overfill it, it will ooze its filling. Not that that ruins it or anything. Poke the top with a fork to allow steam to escape, and bake at 350 F until golden. Just make sure to bake more than one.
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